ATKINS, John (c.1754-1838), of Halstead Place, nr. Sevenoaks, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1802 - 1806
1812 - 1818
1826 - 1832

Family and Education

b. c. 1754.1 m. (1) 12 Apr. 1779, at St. Stephen Walbrook, London, Sarah Littell (or Little), spinster of that parish (d. 31 Aug. 1802), 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 2da. d.v.p.; (2) 1 Oct. 1803, Anna Maria, da. of Ven. Andrew Burnaby, DD, of Bagrave Hall, Leics., adn. of Leicester and vic. of Greenwich, 2s. d.v.p. 5da. (3 d.v.p.) d. 26 Oct. 1838.

Offices Held

Alderman, London 1808-d., sheriff 1809-10, ld. mayor 1818-19.

Member, Merchant Taylors’ Co. 1800; dir. E.I. Dock Co. 1805-d.; vice-pres. Soc. of Shipowners 1817.


Atkins, a London alderman for Walbrook ward, had risen from obscure origins to make a fortune from commerce: a local history records that ‘having in early life been a tide waiter he was by no means remarkable for his polished manners’.2 A convert to ministerial politics by 1812, his reputation among Whigs and radicals was scarcely enhanced by his stewardship of the lord mayor’s office. Following a meeting at Smithfield in July 1819 Lord Holland noted how

Atkins ... a foolish and violent man, at the risk of provoking a real riot, arrested a brawling parson of the name of Harrison in the very act of talking nonsense to a multitude. This silly zeal was magnified as a feat of prodigious vigour and decision. Many a justice of the quorum waxed emulous of the fame of a lord mayor who ... modestly reported that he had defeated a conspiracy ‘to burn the metropolis and murder the inhabitants’.

Such alarmism won him the nickname in radical circles of ‘Hell-fire Jack’, among others. He suffered another humiliation when a court of aldermen found him guilty of malpractice in an election for the common council of Walbrook ward, which had allegedly resembled a rotten borough during his mayoralty. On his retirement in October 1819 he declined the offer of a baronetcy. At the new lord mayor’s parade it was reported that Atkins received an ‘uncourteous reception’ from the populace: ‘hisses and cries resounded on all sides and some miscreant threw a brickbat into his coach as he passed along Bridge Street’.3 Having lost his London seat in 1818, he offered for the venal borough of Barnstaple in 1820 as a supporter of Lord Liverpool’s ministry but withdrew before the poll; at a by-election for the same borough in 1824 he was beaten into third place. Shortly before this, when ‘a monied man’ was being sought to fill a vacancy at Sandwich, the premier Lord Liverpool mentioned Atkins as a suitable candidate, ‘if a better man cannot be found’.4 In the event, he was returned unopposed for Arundel on the independent interest in 1826 but, doubtless mindful of the influence of the Whig duke of Norfolk, he reportedly undertook not to oppose Catholic relief (which he had done when previously in Parliament).5

He duly abstained on Burdett’s relief motion, 6 Mar. 1827. He spoke in favour of the ministerial plan for moderate reform of the corn laws, 9 Mar., and opined that the duty on warehoused corn should be levied with reference to its price when it entered the country, 6 Apr. He defended the grant for a refuge for delinquent orphans, 15 Mar.,6 and voted for the duke of Clarence’s annuity, 16 Mar. 1827. He rebuked Hume for feigning non-comprehension of a vote for a grant to the king, 6 Feb. 1828. He presented a petition from the Protestant Dissenters of Arundel for repeal of the Test Acts, 19 Feb., but voted against this, 26 Feb. He divided with the duke of Wellington’s ministry against the motion accusing a witness of lying before the East Retford disfranchisement committee, 7 Mar., and that condemning delays in chancery, 24 Apr., for the ordnance estimates, 4 July, and against the corporate funds bill, 10 July. He spoke against a renewed attempt to move Smithfield market, 13 June. He defended the existing law on a ship’s captain’s stoppage rights on freight, 10 July 1828, when he replied to an objection to the warehousing of foreign corn by pointing out that merchants would merely store it in Holland if not permitted to do so in England. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, predicted that he would side ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation, but he voted against it, 6, 18 Mar. He criticized the bill relating to poor rates in Rotherhithe, where he owned property, for giving too much power to overseers, 28 May 1829. He divided against Lord Blandford’s reform plan, 18 Feb., the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May 1830. He presented and endorsed an Arundel petition against the Shoreham road bill, 9 Mar. He introduced a bill to exempt occupiers of almshouses from poor law assessment and other parochial rates, 17 May, but objections were raised to such a blanket scheme and the bill foundered in committee. He voted against amendments to the Galway franchise bill, 24 May. He divided against reduction of the grant for South American missions and abolition of the death penalty for forgery, 7 June. Speaking as a West Indian proprietor, 30 June 1830, he felt ‘compelled against my inclination’ to support Lord Chandos’s amendment for a larger reduction in the sugar duties, which was ‘urgently required’. At the general election that summer a threatened opposition to him at Arundel on account of his anti-Catholic votes failed to materialize and he was returned unopposed.7

The ministry regarded Atkins as one of their ‘friends’, and he voted with them in the crucial civil list division,